Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Scientific Inquisition

If we believe as scientists that we are any different from the church that forbid Galileo from airing his views, we need to study the disgrace of Watson at this web site.

James Watson Tells Inconvenient Truth

Here's just the last paragraph:

Along with E.O. Wilson, James Watson is perhaps the most distinguished living figure in American biology, and yet even he was not immune to immediate expulsion from the very lab he created and built up over 40 years of his life, and excommunication from the scientific establishment that celebrated him. All this for one crime: voicing scientific facts and hypotheses that made this community uncomfortable. The same personal and professional fate befell former Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005 for a purely academic discussion of females in science during an economics conference intended for discussing this very subject!

What effect will this continuing intellectual mob violence have on future and current scientists and researchers who want to freely study human genetics, cross-cultural psychology, sociology, or any discipline that may reveal similar facts that have the potential to cause their professional or personal destruction by an intellectual community that resembles the medieval church?

Those who punish, those who lie, those who silence, those who condemn, those who intimidate... they have corrupted science.

They have injured the intellectual openness, freedom, and fairness of our society and our institutions, with untold costs to our collective human well-being.

Not James D. Watson.

6 comments:

Howard Pattee said...

Here are my immediate mixed feelings about the content of Joel’s post “The Scientific Inqusition”

First, I don’t have faith in intelligence tests. The idea that the most complex organ on Earth (and maybe in the universe) can be usefully measured by a single number after an hour of linguistic interrogation sounds foolish. Still, we will always have tests.

Second, no one has figured out how to rigorously separate the effects of genetics, epigenetics, embryonic development, and the family and cultural effects on all the levels of learning from infancy to adulthood. Therefore, to state, “Watson tells the truth” is not justified. In this sensitive context it is inflammatory and only polarizes discussion of a complex problem.

Third, there is a moral issue about scientific knowledge that I have mixed feelings about. One must always be aware of the difference between what we can control and what we can’t control (e.g., Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer).

G. B. Shaw expressed my mixed feelings in one of my favorite plays, Major Barbara. I like the anti-religious, materialist character of Undershaft, but Lady Britomart has a point.
LADY BRITOMART: Barbara, I positively forbid you to listen to your father's abominable wickedness. And you, Adolphus, ought to know better than to go about saying that wrong things are true. What does it matter whether they are true if they are wrong?
UNDERSHAFT: What does it matter whether they are wrong if they are true?

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel has raised two issues:

1) Should a distingushed scientist lose his job over a controversial statement that, after due consideration, he believed was factual?

2) Is it true that the population of the southern region of a particular continent is, on average, significantly less capable of adapting to modern technology and competing in the world economy than the populations of other regions?


1) Freedom Of Expression

Some purists would say we need scientists to express their honestly-held ideas even if they are unpopular. The Inquisition forced Galileo to recant the Copernican view that the Earth rotated around the Sun, because that view contradicted the then accepted "Biblical correctness".

Of course, Copernicus/Galileo turned out to be correct, but even had they been wrong, most of us would support their "right", as scientists, to express their considered opinions.

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA molecular structure and Nobel prize winner, expressed a controversial opinon. As a result, the board of the Laboratory he founded suspended him. He later resigned. His scheduled lectures were cancelled.

Was the board of his Laboratory justified? Were the institutions that cancelled lectures justified?

Sadly, I have to agree with their actions because, had they not distanced themselves from Watson, they would have lost critical grants from governments and others.

The first priority of the board of any institution is to preserve their funding. As long as the majority of funding comes from government, political rather than scientific considerations will rule. "Political correctness" is the latest version of medieval "Biblical correctness".

(2) Was Watson Wrong?

IMHO, Watson spoke "not wisely, but too well" when he said he was:

"inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really."

Like Galileo, Watson was forced to recant. He said he was:

"mortified by what had happened."

"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said, ..."

"To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."


I agree with Howard that a single number after an IQ test cannot fully measure the power of a human brain. The theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) recognizes the brain and central nervous system is responsible for at least the following kinds of intelligence:

o Linguistic intelligence ("word smart")
o Logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart")
o Spatial intelligence ("picture smart")
o Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")
o Musical intelligence ("music smart")
o Interpersonal intelligence ("people smart")
o Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")
o Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart")

Each and every one of these intelligences are critically necessary to being fully human. They have evolved to high levels in all humans over tens of thousands of years.

The standardized "IQ" test attempts to measure only the first three items. However, I don't think anyone will challenge the notion that these three (words, numbers and vision) have become relatively more important in our technogical, scientific, globalized age.

Howard notes the IQ test is taken over a short period, however, when millions of youths take the tests, the average results are based on millions of hours of measurement. When the average results for youths living in relative poverty in East Asia, for example, are significantly higher than youths living in relative wealth in other regions, there have to be consequences.

It is more important to confront these differences than to argue about the causes (colonialism, slavery, cultures, nutrition, genetics, ... most likely a combination of the above).

Anyone who is not "inherently gloomy" about the future of regions that score up to two deviations below the world average on the exact abilities necessary for the modern age is just not paying attention. (See my earlier Topic on the conseqences of a two standard deviation difference.)

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

Howard's quote from Major Barbara put me in mind of another from the Buddha, who when asked whether criticism was in line with his teachings replied that criticism must be both kind and true to be effective. If the truth hurts too much, it's not going to change anyone.

Stu

joel said...

From Ira's reference:

Dr. Gardner says that our schools and culture focus most of their attention on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence. We esteem the highly articulate or logical people of our culture. However, Dr. Gardner says that we should also place equal attention on individuals who show gifts in the other intelligences: the artists, architects, musicians, naturalists, designers, dancers, therapists, entrepreneurs, and others who enrich the world in which we live. Unfortunately, many children who have these gifts don’t receive much reinforcement for them in school. Many of these kids, in fact, end up being labeled "learning disabled",

Joel responds:

Once again our schools are the target of the failure of others. It's no secret that the IQ test was invented as a predictor of academic success. As demonstrated in widely reviled and misunderstood, "The Bell Curve," it also predicts many other types of success in life. Inventing other types of "I.Q." to make people feel better about themselves doesn't really address the problem and shifts the burden of solution to an already overburdened educational system. As the article concerning the crucifiction of Watson points out, the standard IQ test is biased toward just those capabilities that a population needs to succeed in the modern world. (That includes artists, architects, musicians, naturalists, designers, dancers, therapists, entrepreneurs, and others who enrich the world in which we live). That has to be faced and addressed. To say, as some apologists have, that Africans would do better than others, if the test were about primitive survival skills, is to condemn Africans to Third World status forever. A problem can't be solved, if it isn't recognized. With respect -Joel

joel said...

Ira said: Sadly, I have to agree with their actions because, had they not distanced themselves from Watson, they would have lost critical grants from governments and others. The first priority of the board of any institution is to preserve their funding. As long as the majority of funding comes from government, political rather than scientific considerations will rule. "Political correctness" is the latest version of medieval "Biblical correctness".

Joel responds: Hmmmm. This is a surprising comment that leaves me speechless, so let me try a little stream of consciousness. My first feeling after surprise is disappointment and puzzlement. However on thinking about it, I realize that I have a different personality when I serve on committees than when I serve independently. For better or worse, we have a different mentality when acting as a member of a collective. Maybe this is one of the failings of collectivities.

I have no regrets about how I've lived my personal life, holding to a quasi Marcus Aurelius or Man of la Mancha philosophy. It has cost me in material and professional success, but that hasn't mattered that much. On the other hand, looking back on my committee actions, I do have some regrets, having acted to a different and less noble standard. It appears that accepting membership on a committee somehow allows us to excuse our own behavior. Is it that we want to act selfishly and hiding behind our role as a committee member gives us a certain anonymity? Is it that agreeing to membership reorders our priorities? Would Marcus Aurelius simply refuse to serve on a committee knowing that he would have to do things in the name of the empire that he wouldn't do himself. T'is a puzzlement.

Can unlimited evil be done by an individual in the name of a collective? How do we set the standards? Would a board member's conversation with Watson go something like this?

"Dr. Watson, I'm sorry to have to inform you that for the sake of the laboratory you founded, we have to terminate your connection. We can't stand any possible criticism that might arise from your presence. Personally, I think that what you said was perfectly reasonable given the scientific data, but the newspapers have misquoted you and blown this thing out of all proportion. As a board member, I must overlook my personal scruples and avoid any risk to the institution. I thought that perhaps I should resign in protest over this decision, but that could be made to appear as an endorsement of your position by members of the media. As a member of the board, I enjoy a certain power and stature that I certainly wouldn't want to put at risk in the name of an abstraction like free speech. Free speech is a matter for another organization." A member of the board of The Science Museum, dedicated to inspiring young children concerning the history of science, must have had an even more difficult time rationalizing the cancelation of his previously scheduled presentation.

Still confused. With respect -Joel

Stu Denenberg said...

Joel said: "Is it that we want to act selfishly and hiding behind our role as a committee member gives us a certain anonymity? Is it that agreeing to membership reorders our priorities?

I would answer no to the first question and yes to the second. With regard to the first, I think being a member of a group puts us in a position to be unselfish and not to impose our personal ideas and ideals on others. It's easier to act selfishly than unselfishly and the group facilitates unselfish behavior in return for protection. Unfortunately it also can also facilitate dumb and cruel behavior e.g. war which brings out the best and the worst in us.

It is in that way "that agreeing to membership reorders our priorities" or at least gives us more choice to do so.